Albums by John Bullard and Wu Wei/Wang Li
Classical Banjo: The Perfect Southern Art (Bullard Music)
You scan the playlist — Schumann, Handel, Bach, and friends — and you wonder how this is possible. But no: John Bullard is serious, and although he plays the banjo, he does not view that as an impediment to his music-making. The instrument has essentially nothing “classical” in its repertoire, to be sure, but musicians in such a quandary can always turn to transcriptions. I suspect Bullard was formerly an oboist, because most of his pieces were originally penned for that instrument. He infuses Schumann’s Three Romances (Op. 94) with harp-like sonority as Robert Kortgaard accompanies on a piano that has been damped to the point of pianissimo, which keeps it from swamping the solo line. A small vocal ensemble, singing the chorale melody in Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” is similarly exiled to faraway climes — the next room, perhaps? — in Bullard’s adept, banjo-to-the-fore rendition. Alessandro Marcello’s famous Oboe Concerto doesn’t seem so wacky on banjo when you remember that Marcello’s fellow Venetian Antonio Vivaldi wrote concertos for the mandolin, which inhabits a similar sound world. Numerous able musician friends assist, including two lute players; this broadens the pleasant pluckedstring atmosphere. Transcriptions of six movements from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces are strange indeed. But apart from that, Bullard makes a case for using the five-string banjo to play classics rather than bluegrass, which at least earns him points for pluckiness. — James M. Keller
WU WEI/WANG LI Overtones (Harmonia Mundi Musique) It may have been a while since you have listened to a 75-minute recital of music for jaw harp and mouth organ, but your wait has ended. The mouth organ featured on this CD is the sheng, a Chinese instrument of ancient roots. The player activates its sound by both exhaling and inhaling, which allows the possibility of extended, continuous tones; each note in its three-octave range has a different timbre, with the result that — as the accompanying booklet notes put it — “you might think you were listening to a wind ensemble.” In the course of his impressive international career, Wu Wei has premiered some 300 pieces for the sheng, including 10 concertos with orchestra. Wang Li is his counterpart on kouxian, the Chinese jaw harp (or Jew’s harp), whose artistry far transcends mere twang. The musicians expand their sonic palette through other skills, playing bawu (a Chinese flute) or leiqing (a bowed string instrument), for example, and rendering overtone singing. They are masters of extracting unanticipated sounds from their instruments and from their bodies. Many of their tracks are placid, though some are energized by needle-sharp rhythms and tingling articulation. It would be misguided to dismiss this as New Age meandering. Each track invites careful listening, and the album as a whole can lull one into a state of deep concentration. — J.M.K.